The Silver Wedding Anniversary
By Nurit Henig
Avishag Gabai unpacks a handbag made of good leather in room 701 on the seventh floor. She glances at the watch on her cell phone. She still has time; she needs a cigarette.
Lately she has returned to smoking, so she locates the smoke alarm on the ceiling, pulls out a cigarette and a lighter and goes out on the terrace. The blue landscape revealed to her is filled with smoke. She fills up her lungs to capacity as she inhales, sighing with relief.
She does not like and does not allow herself to be pressured, but right now she is not relaxed.
Like all the gorgeous women of the old Meyuchas family from Jerusalem, her skin is olive and her black hair flows in wild curls.
Her beloved grandmother Miriam Meyuchas, whose roots are deep into the holy land, taught her that it was best to keep everything inside…”We, the Sephardic women, are proud and wise…” She whispered in her ear “You will be strong, Chikita, you hear?... La casa del jeque a la mujer.” (The home belongs to the woman.)”
In a few hours, here at the seaside hotel, she will meet her husband, Avinoam, back from one of his long missions abroad. She planned this meeting awhile ago. They have been together for twenty-five years, but she spends long periods without him, and they have been getting longer during the past year. Even during her fifty-seventh birthday she remembered that she was alone again.
In the dig she has been managing for years, surrounded by archaeology students and volunteers from all over the globe, she behaves like a great lady at home. She digs under the layers and dares to invade even those that were as yet unauthorized. All her acquaintance knows she never did anything by the book. It was so as a student, when her master’s thesis “Innovations at City of David” did not follow the accepted formats, and it was so when her advisor left his family for her and then regretted it when she left him.
When she went to Harvard to work on her doctorate, she took her little son with her, refusing to reveal his father’s name.
At Boston’s Israeli Consulate she met her future partner, who would be with her for many years.
He introduced himself to her during the New Year party.
“Commercial attaché, not anything exciting enough to tell the grandchildren…”
She knew he was a bachelor and deduced he was busy with much more than that.
It seemed there would be something to tell the grandchildren. His periods of silence fascinated her. He never asked her anything more than was necessary, and did not reveal much about his life despite being an “old bachelor.”
This quiet man would give her all she wanted. For the first time in her life she chose a formal relationship arranged by a written agreement, something she learned from the Americans among other things so alien to her family’s reality in Jerusalem. He offered her a civil legal commitment without a religious ceremony, and she agreed immediately; she brought a child with her and needed much freedom and independence. “La casa del jeque a la mujer…”
But now, after twenty-five years, the periods of separation are extended, and those of silence are prolonged. The dig, where she has turned every stone, lost its charm.
More than once she asks herself if this obsession, digging under the layers, is really an escape from questions she has been avoiding for a long time.
She was not aware of the issue until her only son mentioned it, with the cynicism of a journalist of a Jerusalem local newspaper.
“You are losing it… stop bothering with digging near the wall; better expose what is happening to you at home.”
Perhaps she did lose the control she was so sure of over her life.
“Your ‘show” is no longer impressive, Mother. Surely it does not impress Avinoam.”
He respects Avinoam and would have liked to be like him. However, he resembled his father in everything, and already knew his name but refused to meet him.
Avishag was not aware of the chinks that were visible in the powerful façade she carefully surrounded herself with. Was she losing both of them?
The cigarette burns her finger. She returns to the room and finds an ashtray. She removes her yellow linen dress. Avinoam has always known how to choose colors that would emphasize her skin color and he never made a mistake about the size. She takes a nightgown out of her bag, bathing supplies, and the picture album whose pages are moth-eaten. (Only twenty-five years and already faded and damaged…).
Instead of a Ketuba…” he laughed when he gave it to her with a hesitant gesture, when the contract was signed.
She turns the album’s pages, a couple with a child. They look at her, seriously, significantly, as if they knew the goal they undertook was vast; it scared them.
She lights another cigarette and sits on the bed. The mattress accepts her body as it imprints its shape on it, and she sinks into it. She is reminded of Avinoam’s body odor near her. She falls asleep for a minute, a broken hint of memory surfaces, but she wakes up.
A knock on the door, and another; surprised, she looks at the mobile, has he come early, there is an hour before landing or maybe he took another flight…
She takes out the Johnnie Walker bottle, puts it on the table, and goes to the door.
Behind the door an unknown young man’s voice is heard. She is glad Avinoam is not early.
“Everything all right?”
She cracks the door open. A young man in his twenties looks at her seriously.
“Security. Sorry to intrude, but there is a problem with the smoke detector. Is someone smoking inside the room?”
Her mobile rings and she asks to be excused and disappears inside.
The young man is not moving.
“Where are you?” he hears the surprise in her voice.
She lowers her voice. He is having difficulty hearing… hesitating whether to leave or stay and investigate… he does not want to disturb her.
He hears her say something in a strained voice.
“You promised… do whatever you think.”
Silence. The crack in the door widens.
“Sorry, I must check,” and steps inside.
A beautiful woman, he says to himself.
“I am sorry I delayed you, I had an urgent call.”
“The smoke detector has been activated, I must check.”
Avishag opens the door widely. He enters and immediately notices the cigarette burning in the ash tray. He stabs the cigarette and turns to her, but she walks into the bathroom and shuts the door. He is surprised by her detachment.
Embarrassed and inexperienced in such matters he raises his voice
“You see, I am sorry I disturbed you, but it is forbidden to smoke in the room.”
She does not react. He puts his ear to the door.
“I stabbed the cigarette, I am going now. Please don’t smoke in the room, I don’t need trouble.”
Silence, but it seems to him he hears suppressed crying.
The young man stands there, embarrassed, does not know if he should stay or leave. Perhaps he has hurt her feelings. All she did was smoke in the room, but after his first week on the job he cannot do a sloppy job. No one is going to smoke on his watch.
Avishag suddenly opens the door. Looks like she has washed her face.
“You are taking it too much to heart.”
She chuckles with a motherly smile.
“Don’t be silly, my boy, thanks for the help. I am fine.”
“Excellent, so nothing happened, I am out of here.” He lingers to make sure she is okay.
“Wait a second,” she hands him the bottle.
“I no longer need that, and you can celebrate with your girlfriend. Really, thank you.” She forces him to take the bottle.
“Sorry, I was told I cannot accept gifts from the guests.”
“You always do what they tell you?”
“I am on duty.”
She almost enjoys seeing him squirm with embarrassment with the bottle in his hand, does not dare, or perhaps really scared.
“You are no longer in the military, ah? No one will know, I certainly will not tell.”
He retreats, confused and angry, what does she think that she is bothering him for, because
of her he will screw up his position…
“I don’t want to insult you, you are a mature woman, surely someone important.”
He does not know why he said she was important. Perhaps the elegant leather bag, her appearance, her confident way of speaking, the suite at the top floor that costs a fortune, but on the other hand, she cries easily…
She examines him with her black eyes and sees a young man, right after the military, so afraid to break the rules that he is not taking advantage of the opportunity to have a drink with her. And him, he has no intention to lose his job for her.
“So what did you say your name is?”
He did not say that his name was Alex.
“I have a son your age, and he looks for opportunities to break the rules. Where are you from?”
She asks but does not wait for an answer.
“Surely you are from the North, saw combat, and looked for a job by the sea?”
Wow how she digs, he thinks, but she is right. He just finished serving as an officer and he adores the sea. How does she know all that?
The thoughts run madly through his brain. This woman is too strong for him.
His confidence wavers. Maybe he has been wrong to take this job; they did not prepare him for such people, behaving as if they owned the world. She is about his mother’s age, but not as restrained, perhaps even a little vulgar. He wishes he did not go to this room.
Avishag takes the bottle and pours into two glasses, hands him one, tries to put it to his mouth as if to quench her own thirst. Then she drinks her glass with one long gulp, loses her equilibrium and falls weakly on the bed.
Alex does not drink, but she no longer sees him. Her eyes are focused on one point in the carpet, and it seems to him that she has lost all the strength she has presented a moment ago and no longer looks as if the world belongs to her.
“I think you need rest. Sleep…”
Now he knows exactly what to do. He takes the empty glass from her hand. He removes the soft slippers off her feet, helps her gently into the bed, then pulls the blanket and covers her. She responds to him as if she expected him to do so. He turns off the light and quickly leaves the room.
He could not have guessed that she was celebrating her silver anniversary alone.